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Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Questioners for PMQs

This of those down to put a question to the Prime Minister, David Cameron, this lunchtime:

  • John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 25 February?
  • Naomi Long (Belfast East) 
  • Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) 
  • Sir Richard Ottaway (Croydon South)
  • David Mowat (Warrington South) 
  • Ben Gummer (Ipswich) 
  • Gavin Shuker (Luton South) 
  • Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) 
  • Mr George Howarth (Knowsley)
  • Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) 
  • John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) 
  • Clive Efford (Eltham) 
  • Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington)
  • Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury)

Plenty of bobbing will be taking place....

Liberal Democrat
Alliance Party of Northern Ireland 

Monday, 23 February 2015

Labour and the Lib Dems attack Tory plans to ring fence pensioner benefits

The Liberal Democrats say that the working age poor will pay the price under the Conservatives' plans to ring-fence pensioners benefits. The Conservatives plans which have been put forward today by David Cameron, while on the campaign trail in Hastings. Mr Cameron's proposals include protecting all universal pensioner benefits such as the winter fuel allowance and free TV licences.

Alternatively the Liberal Democrats say they believe in creating a fairer society. They say their plans include removing the winter fuel payments and free TV licences from the wealthiest five per cent of pensioners.

Commenting Liberal Democrat Pensions Minister Steve Webb said: "The working age poor will pay the price for the Conservative ring fence for the very wealthiest pensioners. The Conservatives are proposing £12bn of welfare cuts which is the equivalent of a £1500 cut for eight million people. By ruling out any changes to benefits of wealthy pensioners they are showing their determination to balance the books solely on the backs of disabled people and the working age poor." 

Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Rachel Reeves, also criticised David Cameron's announcement saying that: "David Cameron’s government has let millions of pensioners down, failing to act on rising fuel costs and rip off pension fees and charges. Pensioners will find it hard to take pre-election promises seriously from a Prime Minister who has introduced the granny tax, increased VAT, and caused the Tory NHS crisis which has damaged social care services."

Ms Reeves also said what the alternative she was proposing: "Labour has a better plan for pensioners. We will support the triple lock, freeze energy bills and ensure savers are protected against pension rip-off pension charges and mis-selling. As part of our plan to get the deficit down in a fairer way, we will stop paying the winter fuel allowance to the richest five per cent of pensioners and reverse David Cameron’s tax cut for millionaires. Accusations that we will end pensioner benefits are simply untrue."

Miliband calls on Cameron to ban MPs 2nd jobs

Labour Leader Ed Miliband has today written to the Prime Minister, David Cameron, 'challenging him' to follow Labour’s lead in banning MPs from holding paid directorships and consultancies. Labour MPs and Prospective Parliamentary Candidates have already been put on notice that from the coming General Election the Party’s Standing Orders will be changed to prevent them holding such second jobs.

The measure, which Ed Miliband confirms today will be included in the Labour party’s manifesto, would ensure no Labour MP holds a paid directorship or consultancy. Labour is also consulting on legislative measures including placing a strict cap – similar to one that exists for members of the US Congress - on any additional money they can earn beyond their salary as representatives of the people.

Ed Miliband’s decision to act follow a series of allegations over recent years about how MPs from both sides of the House of Commons have risked a conflict of interest by seeking or taking paid work from outside organisations. In his letter to David Cameron, Ed Miliband recognises that problems of trust in politics go across party lines and the issue of second jobs has damaged the reputation of Parliament as a whole over the past two decades.

Ed Miliband MP, Leader of the Labour Party, writing to David Cameron today said:

Dear Prime Minister,
I write this letter to you not just as leader of the Labour Party but as someone who believes that we all need to act to improve the reputation of our Parliament in the eyes of the British people.
I believe MPs are dedicated to the service of their constituents and the overwhelming majority follow the rules. But the British people need to know that when they vote they are electing someone who will represent them directly, and not be swayed by what they may owe to the interests of others.
Two years ago I said Labour MPs would not be able to hold paid directorships or consultancies after the next election.
My party is also consulting on legislation to make this a statutory ban, as well as imposing a strict cap on all outside earnings by MPs.
Today I can confirm that these measures will be included in my party’s General Election manifesto.
The low levels of trust in politics demands clarity and I urge you to follow my lead in banning paid directorships and consultancies.

There have been too many scandals about conflicts of interest in recent years. It is time to draw a line under this and ensure these current allegations are the last.
I am sure you will agree this is a problem which affects all parties. I believe these are circumstances which demand action and leadership. I look forward to receiving your response.

Ed Miliband

Thursday, 19 February 2015

ERS: Clean up party funding 'another scandal is just around the corner'

A new report from the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) has been released this morning, entitled Deal or No Deal: How to put an end to party funding scandals. The new report shows scale of public anger over the way parties are funded; sets out three recommendations designed to clean up the system and warns that another scandal is just around the corner unless urgent action is taken. The recent spate of party donor scandals has led to renewed calls for reform of the party funding system.

The report highlights 2014 ERS polling which shows that:

  • 75% believe big donors have too much influence on our political parties
  • 65% believe party donors can effectively buy knighthoods and other honours
  • 61% believe the system of party funding is corrupt and should be changed

The report goes on to propose three solutions, all of which have been recommended by previous committees looking into party funding and have been shown by ERS polling and focus group research to command support from the public. These are:

  • A cap on the amount that anyone can donate to a party, to end the big-donor culture that has led to scandal after scandal
  • An increased element of public funding for parties, to bring the UK into line with other advanced democracies
  • A cap on the amount that parties are allowed to spend, to end the arms race between parties at election time

Darren Hughes, Deputy Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society said: "The public are sick to death of party funding scandals, and the latest revelations have simply added more fuel to the fire. “Whatever the outcome in May, the next government has to get to grips with the way parties are funded. The litany of suspect deals and shady funding practices revealed over the past few years shows that unless serious action is taken, the next scandal will be just around the corner."

Mr Hughes continued: “There is huge public support for doing what it takes to get big money out of politics, so whichever party takes a lead on this could stand to benefit at the polls.”“The UK is way behind the rest of Europe on this, spending just a tenth of the European average on supporting parties and doing far less than most countries when it comes to limiting the influence of wealthy donors."

“It’s time we caught up with the modern world and cleaned up party funding once and for all."  Darren Hughes added.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Balls letter to Osborne over HSBC "tax evasion"

Please find below the text of a letter sent today by Ed Balls to George Osborne:
Dear George,
It has now been over a week since the full story about tax evasion and HSBC became public. There are a number of questions which you have failed to answer over the last eight days and which cannot continue to be brushed under the carpet:
1. Why has there only been one prosecution out of 1,100 names? Was the “selective prosecution policy” a decision made by Ministers?
Detailed information was passed to this government in May 2010 about 1,100 HSBC clients allegedly guilty of tax evasion or avoidance and yet since then there has been just one prosecution.
In November 2012 a senior HMRC official told The Times that the government had adopted “a selective prosecution policy” towards cases related to HSBC. Later that month HMRC told the Public Accounts Committee that “another dozen” criminal prosecutions were to follow. However, there have been none since.
Given the scale of the alleged wrongdoing, can you explain why only one prosecution has been made and what role Ministers played in deciding on “a selective prosecution policy” for those accused of tax evasion? People would expect you to have been either involved in, or at least aware of, a decision of this seriousness.
Why did the Financial Secretary to the Treasury claim in the House of Commons last week that the government was provided this data “under very strict conditions”, when the French Finance Minister has since suggested otherwise?
2. When were you first made aware of these files, what action did you take and did you discuss it with the Prime Minister?
While a Downing Street spokesperson claimed last week that “no government minister” had any knowledge of what happened at HSBC, the Chief Executive of HMRC has since revealed that Ministers were in fact informed about these files after they were received:
"We are confident we will have told Ministers that we were about to receive a big tranche of operational information," she said. "We will have told people, including Ministers, I suspect some time in the next few months [after the data was received]." Lin Homer, Chief Executive HMRC, Public Accounts Committee, 11 February 2015
When were you and Treasury Ministers first made aware of these files and did you take any action as a result? If not, what were the reasons for this inaction? Did you ever discuss this with the Prime Minister?
3. Why did you and David Cameron appoint Lord Green as a Conservative peer and Minister months after the government received these files?
Lord Stephen Green was Chairman of HSBC 2006-2010 and was appointed a Conservative Peer in September 2010 and then as Trade Minister by David Cameron in January 2011.
This was several months after the government was given information from the French government in May 2010. There had also been extensive public coverage of this investigation since 2010.
For example, on 26 September 2010, the Sunday Telegraph reported that HMRC is investigating more than 200 “extremely wealthy” British taxpayers suspected of tax evasion totalling “many millions of pounds”. It adds that they are “believed to have failed to declare huge sums of interest from private deposit accounts with HSBC’s bank in Switzerland.” (Sunday Telegraph, 26 September 2010)
Why was Lord Green appointed months after the government had this information? Can you provide details of the due diligence carried out by the government in advance of Lord Green’s appointment?
4. Did you and David Cameron discuss tax evasion at HSBC with Lord Green, or did you turn a blind eye? Did you discuss allegations of money laundering at HSBC during Lord Green’s time at HSBC which led to the bank being fined $1.9bn?
Did you or Treasury Ministers ever discuss what happened at HSBC with Lord Green in the almost three years in which he was a Conservative Minister? The Prime Minister failed to answer this question four times in the House of Commons last week.
Did you or Treasury Ministers ever discuss allegations of money laundering at HSBC during Lord Green’s time in charge of the bank, which first became public in July 2012 following an investigation by the US Senate Homeland Security Sub Committee and which led to the bank being fined $1.9bn in December 2012? When were you and Treasury Ministers first made aware of the findings of this inquiry?
If you or your Ministers did not ever raise any of these issues with Lord Green while he was a Minister or before his appointment, would this not be remiss given the scale of wrongdoing which you would have been aware of?
5. Why did you sign a deal with the Swiss authorities in 2012 which prevents the UK from actively obtaining similar information in the future?
The Swiss tax deal, which you heralded in the 2012 Autumn Statement, has not only raised a fraction of the sums promised, it also seems to tie the hands of HMRC and the UK government for the future. The following declaration was made by the Treasury:
Declaration of the United Kingdom concerning the acquisition of customer data stolen from Swiss banks:
The Government of the United Kingdom declares on the occasion of the signing of the Agreement between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Swiss Confederation on cooperation in the area of taxation that it will not actively seek to acquire customer data stolen from Swiss banks
This deal means that the government may never again be able to get hold of the sort of information it received in 2010 about tax evasion and which is at the centre of this scandal. This deal was also made while Lord Green was a Conservative Minister and years after this government was first given information about tax evasion in May 2010.
Why did you sign this declaration and what advice were you given about how it would impede HMRC and the government’s ability to act in the future?
Did Lord Green have any involvement in the Swiss tax deal while he was a Trade Minister and did he ever give any advice to the Treasury on it?
Given the significant public interest in this matter, I am making this letter public. It is notable that you have not given any live broadcast interviews or given a statement in the House of Commons on this issue. However, these questions cannot continue to be ignored and I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,
Ed Balls

Greens blast Cameron for punishing rather than helping young people

The Greens have criticised Tory proposals for 18-21 year old who have been ‘NEET’ for six months prior to claiming benefits will be required to do community work right from the start of their claim. As proposals designed to "punish" the most vulnerable young people in society when they need the opposite with getting 'help' back 'into work'. 

Green spokesman Dave Cocozza told me that: "Once again, the Conservative party have abandoned thousands of young people and have come up with plans that punish rather than help people into work." 

Mr Cocozza told me that the Conservative party's approach "doesn't address any of the root causes of youth unemployment" saying that Conservative ideology "simply says 'if you're young, you'd better be doing something'."

Turning to what help the Greens say young people need, Dave Cocozza told me "We need to do more to create sustainable, rewarding jobs and we also need to do more to encourage young people to find rewarding careers, or furthering their career prospects or themselves in education, and ensure that those that find themselves in poverty are effectively helped out of it - not by forcing them into a job or a community role they may not necessarily enjoy doing, just so they can get the extra financial help they need."

Mr Cocozza also told me that: "Rising youth unemployment is an issue, but the Conservatives will not work for young people in mind" Saying Conservative ideology "will continue to protect the interests of the 1%, whilst everyone else continues to suffer under austerity."

SNP demand Murphy apologise for NHS claims

Scottish Health Secretary Shona Robison has today called on Jim Murphy to return to the hospital which he visited yesterday and apologise to staff after his party were “caught red-handed fiddling waiting times figures”. Yesterday Labour issued a press release criticising NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde for allegedly cancelling four times as many operations as their counterparts in England. Jim Murphy posted a Youtube video of himself outside Glasgow Royal, and tweeted “Scots deserve to know how many cancelled operations there are in Scotland's NHS. From my visit to Glasgow Royal”

However, within hours the claims had been exposed as a complete falsehood and Mr Murphy had deleted the Tweet and the video from Youtube. It emerged that Labour had vastly inflated the figure in Glasgow by including operations which were cancelled for clinical reasons, while the English figure referred to only those cancelled for non-clinical reasons. There are many legitimate clinical reasons why operations are cancelled, for instance if the patient has not fasted properly.

In the case of NHSGGC, Labour cited 292 cancellations and claimed these worked out at 1.5 per 100,000 population per day. This compared to 19,471 cancelled in England, which Labour said worked out at 0.39 per 100,000 population per day. However, the FOI response provided to Labour made clear that over 200 of those 292 operations – over 70% - were cancelled for clinical reasons. Meanwhile, the figure Labour used for England – which they themselves link to in their press release – makes clear that the 19,471 cancellations south of the border only included those for non-clinical reasons, so Labour were not comparing like with like.

When only non-clinical cancellations are compared for both Scotland and England, the rates of cancellation are in fact broadly comparable. The incident is just the latest blunder from Labour in its attempts to – in the reported words of Ed Miliband – “weaponise” the NHS. Last week Health Spokesperson Jenny Marra was criticised for photographing herself outside a health centre in Fife with Labour’s Westminster candidate, criticising the poor quality of care. But Ms Marra had photographed herself outside the old centre which had closed down, with the Scottish Government funding the construction of a brand new centre right next door.

Commenting, Shona Robison said: "Jim Murphy has been caught red-handed fiddling the NHS figures – and he must withdraw these outrageous claims and issue an immediate and unequivocal apology to NHS staff and patients. It is simply inexcusable for Jim Murphy to have vastly inflated the number of operations cancelled in Glasgow.All of the necessary information was known to Mr Murphy – it was provided in the FOI response to Richard Simpson – yet he withheld this information from his press release in order that he could make these false claims."

Continuing Ms Robison said: "The fact that Mr Murphy has deleted the Tweet and Youtube video shows that he knows he has been exposed. He must now return to the Glasgow Royal and post a similar video – this time apologising to staff and patients. There are undoubtedly pressures in our NHS – but the last thing staff and indeed patients need is to have politicians touring the country whipping up panic with false claims such as these. With behaviour such as this, it is little wonder that Scots overwhelmingly trust the SNP over Labour to act in the NHS’ best interests."